Director Charles Ferguson has made only two films, but brought a crystalline, depressing clarity to both the run-up to the Iraq War and, now, with Inside Job, the 2008 financial crisis that brought America’s economy to its knees. I caught up with the filmmaker recently for a few questions, on occasion of his movie’s DVD release. The conversation is excerpted below:
Brent Simon: So I thought I’d throw you a curveball to start — the MGMT song that ends the movie, “Congratulations” — how did that come about? The audience might be expecting something more known or up-tempo, to punch home their simmering rage in a much more direct fashion.
Charles Ferguson: We heard it and we liked it. We were told by their representatives, fairly late in the process of making the film, that MGMT had just recorded this song that was about the financial crisis, in a very elusive, indirect, poetic way. So we listened to it, both [myself] and producer Audrey Marrs, who actually has a background in rock music, was a punk rock musician a long time ago. We both loved it, so we tried to license it, and we did.
BS: Six or seven minutes on Iceland open the movie, which is like a bracing splash of cold water. How early did the film’s opening coalesce around that idea, that area of focus?
CF: I think that I had the idea to do that as soon as we filmed in Iceland. We spent a week filming there, and it was a very extraordinary experience for many different reasons. We got there just at the start of Icelandic summer, a short period of time where Iceland very dramatically changes from its very stark, dark almost lunar winter landscape to this very lush, green place. We got there just as that was happening, and so visually the place was remarkable, and the experience of interviewing people… some of the most extraordinary ones didn’t make it into the film. Ger Hartegg, who was the prime minister of Iceland during the period of the bubble, and responsible for much of the deregulation, and was indicted, was extraordinary. The experience that country had was such a triple-distilled, utterly clear, crystalline version of what happened in a much more complicated way over a much longer period of time in the United States that I thought it was a perfect introduction to the issues. And also, in film terms, it was very cinematic, beautiful and visually striking, so it just seemed perfect.
BS: You don’t inject yourself into the proceedings to the degree that Michael Moore does, but given that you’d made No End in Sight, which had received acclaim and attention, were you worried that word would get out and people wouldn’t want to talk?
CF: I was concerned about that, and it turned out to be true. Not primarily, however, because of the film. The primary reason that my reputation preceded me, and I’m sure that played a role in why some people declined to be interviewed was on the contrary my prior life as an academic. You know, I know Larry Summers, and he knows me, and I know Laura Tyson, and she knows me. I know quite a number of people in the Obama administration, and many people in the economics discipline, and also a number of senior people in finance. I know John Thain. He agreed to speak with me off the record, and we had many long conversations, but he and most of the other people who know me declined to be interviewed. And I think part of the reason is that they knew that I was a diligent researcher and wasn’t going to be afraid — that if I felt like I had to ask something, I was going to ask it, whether they liked it or not, and that it wasn’t going to be easy for them to get away. And I’m sure that’s why Larry Summers declined to be interviewed.
BS: This leads into my next question, which is that the film isn’t predicated on “gotcha! journalism,” and yet one of the biggest takeaways for me was that you’re asking informed questions, but there were a number of interviewees who seemed to be shocked at the very nature rather than even the content of the questions that you were asking. It seemed that they existed in a bubble where questions concerning a greater good for society weren’t being asked, or weren’t paramount in their minds.
CF: I did notice that. I was very struck by their reactions in these interviews, and the sense that I had was not so much that they were completely oblivious to the idea of ethical standards or the greater good — not that I felt they had behaved ethically, I think that they may have behaved extremely unethically and were aware of that fact — but what was surprising was that it was extremely clear that nobody had ever asked them about these issues before, nobody had ever asked them about their financial conflicts of interest, the academic economists in particular. And I was shocked that they were shocked. It was extremely clear that they expected to be deferred to, and they found it absolutely stunning that somebody was pushing them on these issues. And I gradually realized, in the course of doing all the interviews, that they had never been asked these sorts of questions, which again, I found stunning.
BS: How do you take a film like this and help sell it to an audience outside of those who maybe are the choir, who have a native interest in politics, government and/or documentaries?
CF: It’s important, because I didn’t make this film for my six finance-geek friends. I made the film so that hopefully people in the world can understand what happened here, and that people will come to realize that finance is too important to just leave to the financiers — that we all have to do something about this. And so that certainly guided the way that we made the film. I tried very hard to make the film clear and accessible, and keep jargon out of it. I also tried to keep the film non-political and non-partisan, and I think that we succeeded in that. And I also tried to make it a cool movie; I wanted it to look good, I wanted the music to be cool, I wanted it to be an interesting, enjoyable, compelling experience to watch this movie. That was the goal — to make it as accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
BS: It’s not a thriller per se, but the dramatic components within the film are fairly timeless — greed, overreach, hubris, all those good, big meaty things. Taking a birds-eye view, do you think it’s essentially a story about addiction and the atavistic nature of humanity, a story that just happens to be writ large? Some of them are criminals, but some can be fundamentally decent people whose… ethical missteps, let’s say, have a hell of a lot more impact than someone who’s working at a gas station skimming profits from their owner.
CF: (long pause) I think it’s complicated. Part of what occured was the result of rational self-interest and greed. That’s certainly part of the story. There’s another part of what happened here which is about a different part of human nature. One thing that struck me was how disconnected these people had become from the consequences of their actions. They had come to have so much money and power, and came to use their money and power in such very specific ways to place themselves in this bubble where they never felt the consequences of the actions and were never criticized. That’s why I put in the information about the private planes and private elevators, the paying for sex, the drugs, the huge quantities of money that insulated them from all of the things that you or I would experience if we tried to behave in an equally extreme way. If we got into a car here in Los Angeles and floored it and tried to go 200 miles per hour down the city streets, we’d cr
ash and the police would come after us. We couldn’t just do that. But these people, because of all of these things, there was nothing and nobody in the world telling them to stop. And then there’s something else — it was this kind of very primal, competitive, testosterone-fueled thing, which also people talk about in the movie. There’s this amazing line in the first Wall Street: “Mr. Gecko, how many yachts can you water-ski behind?” So why did they do it? Once they had the first $500 million, why did they keep doing it when this was going to be the result? And it’s something about human nature.